The Trump administration recently revealed how it is going to take away food from nearly 700,000 Americans.
This is the first time the administration has succeeded in three attempts to downsize the food stamp program. Food Stamps, also known as the Supplemental Nutrition Assistance Program (SNAP) offer benefits to 39 million low-income Americans for the purchase of certain foods. SNAP is a vital program that reduces hunger and lifts millions of people out of poverty each year.
In December of 2018, the federal government passed the farm bill with hardly any changes to the SNAP program. However, the U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA), which oversees programs in the farm bill, started introducing rules to remove people from SNAP. Because the USDA oversees this program, it can introduce rules related to it. If adopted, these rules carry the same “weight” as laws.
Under previous SNAP rules, able-bodied adults (ages of 18-49) without dependents could only receive three months of SNAP benefits in a three-year period if they didn’t work 20 hours per week. Previously, states with high unemployment rates (at least 20% above the national average) or a lack of sufficient jobs could waive those time limits.
The USDA gave the public 60 days to comment on the proposed rule. More than 140,000 public comments were submitted in response to the rule and while the USDA admitted the majority of comments generally opposed it, they said comments did not provide recommendations on how to address specific policy issues.
As a result, starting April 1, 2020, states can only grant waivers to the three-month time limit in cities or counties that have unemployment rates of 6% or higher and have a two-year average unemployment rate that is 20% above the national average. The waiver is also only valid for one year and requires a governor to endorse the request. The USDA estimates that the new rule will save $5.5 billion over five years by removing 688,000 Americans from the program.
So how does this impact North Carolina? That depends on what our state legislature accomplishes next year. In 2015, former Gov. Pat McCrory and the General Assembly passed the “Protect North Carolina Workers Act,” which permanently banned the state from asking the USDA for time limit waivers. It’s been estimated that more than 100,000 adults in North Carolina lost SNAP benefits because of this law. It also reduced economic activity because for every dollar invested in SNAP, $1.79 goes back into the local economy. This past year, a group of more than two dozen Democratic state House members introduced a bill that sought to reverse the ban, but it was not allowed to move far in the legislative process. Even if this bill were to pass, and the ban is reversed, only 11 counties would be eligible for waivers under the new rule (instead of 41 under the previous rule).
As a researcher, what concerns me about the USDA’s rule is that we lack a comprehensive understanding regarding the many barriers this population faces in finding and securing employment. Some barriers include people whose disability applications have not been approved yet, veterans seeking jobs, youth aging out of the foster care system, and underemployed workers who want to work, but cannot find more hours. Instead of penalizing low-income individuals due to our lack of knowledge on how to assist them, shouldn’t we focus on creating policies based on evidence instead of guesses?
The Secretary of Agriculture said the USDA’s new rule would help move people “from welfare to work.” Thus far, however, there has been no real evidence to support the secretary’s claim. And without adequate data on this population, how do we know this won’t move them “from welfare to poverty?”
Ultimately, this rule is not about promoting economic mobility – it’s about creating a pipeline for economic instability.
Lindsey Haynes-Maslow, PhD, MHA, is an Assistant Professor & Extension Specialist in the Department of Agricultural and Human Sciences at North Carolina State University.